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Virtual World Tour: part 4

The advertising world is awash with advice on how you can do everything ‘from the comfort of your own home’, from running to nowhere to cycling to nowhere, eating in as if you were eating out, going to the cinema via a subscription channel. You get the drift. We are slowly being persuaded that we can live a full and rewarding life without ever stepping over the threshold. The marketing giants have subtlety infiltrated our imprisoned view of the world to persuade us to buy the expensive systems to make living life ‘from the comfort of our own homes’ the holy grail. If you have become an unwilling victim, how can you save your ‘soul’?

You may be disappointed to learn I have no distilled answer to the conundrum but, like you, I endeavour to fight the good fight to stave off the enemy. My own little psychological trick has been to begin a virtual tour of the world, but never more than 50 km from my home so, in a sense, I’ve never really left the ‘comfort of my own home’. After more than 8000 km, I now find myself virtually in Mumbai, on the west coast of India, heading towards Sri Lanka. Why India and Sri Lanka, you might ask?

Well, I once had a plan to spend a few weeks riding the Goa peninsula, before crossing to Sri Lanka, but it never happened. The great ‘virtue’ of doing a ‘virtual’ tour is that I haven’t had to address issues like visas, crossing territories in conflict, doubtful street food, rainy seasons, and the whole plethora of reasons that help to make adventure cycling what it is: adventurous. Which all appears counter-intuitive. After all, the very stuff of the adventurer’s way of life is ‘taking the rough with the rougher’, which then creates the stories that become the ‘click bait’ of the world of social media. The world is not interested in seeing me holding a glass of wine with a crimson sunset in the background. No, they would much rather hear of me sitting miserably in my tent during a rainstorm, and cutting my finger on the sharp edge of a sardine can. For some dark reason, readers take great consolation in the misery suffered by others, better known as the syndrome of “There but for the grace of God…”.

The solace that I feel on a wet November day in England is that I arrive in Mumbai during the dry season, the temperature is 30ºC, the sun is shining in a cloudless sky, and I am assured of at least 11 hours of daylight. So I can now bask in the virtual comfort of my own home.

Virtual World Tour: part 3

You may have picked up from previous posts that I began a virtual World Tour when most countries were putting their citizens under ‘house arrest’, and now that it is autumn (my favourite season for boxing up the bike and taking it to some far-flung corner of the planet), the migratory instinct in me begins to stir once again.

This time last year I was crossing 8 nations on my tour of the Baltic and Eastern Europe when, such was my disappointment at not being able to return home by train from Vienna because of lack of bike space, the seeds of owning a folding bike were sown. My attempt to take my new Tern Verge folder on a three week sortie along the French and Spanish Mediterranean was cut short by the pandemic in February so, rather than cry into my bedtime cocoa, I decided to continue riding throughout the period of confinement, but always within a 30km of my home. ‘Boring’ you might say, but you’d be surprised how many hundreds of kilometres of roads that comprises, and I’ve learned never to fall into the trap of thinking I know my own patch like the proverbial back of my hand, because I didn’t then, and I don’t now. It has been a veritable journey of discovery the whole way.Screenshot_20201001-142024

To add to the intrigue, I’ve been converting my daily rides into a virtual tour of the world, and doing what I would normally do on a long ride, which is to stop in places of interest and discover things by happenstance. Like an indoor spinning machine, which doesn’t exactly replicate a ride in the great outdoors, ‘virtual happenstance’ via the internet cannot replicate an authentic ride across a country or continent, but they are both pretty good substitutes in time of need. So my virtual World Tour, which began in Paris, has taken me through places like Cologne, Nuremberg, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Sofia, Istanbul, and Tehran, and in each place I have used the internet to learn of the history, geography, cuisine and outstanding monuments of each city. Every country has its heroes, so discovering the ‘movers and shakers’ in each country has added another dimension.

Bazaar Karachi

Bazaar, Karachi

After more than 7,000km, I now find myself in Karachi, Pakistan, a huge cosmopolitan city which, despite being the largest city in Pakistan and the seventh largest in the world, ceded its position as capital of the country to the newly-built Islamabad back in 1957, some ten years after partition. The Partition, in fact (when Pakistan was created as an independent nation) saw the biggest migration of people the world had ever seen, when Hindus made their way to India and Muslims to the new Pakistan. Up to that point, Karachi had had a majority of Sindh speakers, but after partition, when the city had tripled in size with a huge influx of Indian Muslims, the demographic changed completely, promoting Urdu as the most spoken language, and ultimately as its official language.

Whatever virtual world you have created to keep yourself doing the things you want to do, I wish you bon voyage!

Please do share thoughts on how you have survived these months of  constraint in the Comments below.

Virtual arrival in Tehran..

Whenever I go out on the bike, which is most days, I sometimes get the feeling I’m pedalling one of the many well-publicised virtual turbo systems where I can virtually climb Mont Ventoux, or race with a bunch of elite cyclists. The fact that you can now do this without ever having to leave the ‘comfort of your own home’ is testament to the versatility of technology these days, but there is a striking paradox here: riding a bike is absolutely all about ‘getting out of the comfort of your own home’, and getting into the countryside. Don’t rely on virtual wind and hills to get your kicks, go out and feel a real 30kph wind in your face, attack a real 15% hill just a few miles from your home, and above all, feel the autumnal sun on your face, smell the early wood smoke of those first fires, and fend off the wasps as they try to eat your energy bar before you do.

My experience of ‘the virtual’ hangs on two things. Firstly, the fact that I have continued to do all my riding on my home patch since the beginning of the pandemic restrictions, and secondly, the fact that a real 6 week trek on some distant continent is just not going to happen this year. So, I have imagined myself riding the world as I have climbed on the bike each day.

On my virtual ride around the world from Paris, I reached the border of Turkey after three months of lockdown, but that was three months ago. A quick re-calculation now shows me to be in Tehran, and I’ve had no fuss at the border with visas nor have I had my luggage checked for illegal substances. But the one thing I have really missed is being able to sleep wild in my little tent. That is definitely something you cannot do in the comfort of your own home.

The inevitable respray

‘It’s déjà vu all over again!’

You get the old hack resprayed and you are reminded of that moment, many years ago, when it was ‘love at first sight’.

But we’ve been through a lot together.

Now for some tech-talk…

Bicycles and human beings have a lot in common. We both have moving parts that either break or wear out. I can probably hear you say: ‘tell me about it!’ You may have broken a bone, which is likely to be an arm, leg or collar bone if you are a cyclist. Some of your joints may have worn out, and you’ve had a hip or knee replacement.

Well, my Litespeed Ti has suffered similarly from progressive age and constant use. I recently picked it up from the ‘bike hospital’, having had most of its moving parts replaced. In fact, the only original bits left are the frame and two wheels (including handlebars and saddle, of course). I have known for months that the whole drivetrain was edging towards the precipice of no return, but the closure of my local bike shop during the pandemic prevented the ‘surgery’ being carried out. So I kept riding and riding, clocking up the miles during lockdown, keeping fingers crossed that the drivetrain wouldn’t suddenly collapse…..but it did. The early symptoms included an overstretched chain jumping on the razor-sharp teeth of the front chainwheel. Just like many of us, the old bike was getting ‘long in the tooth’. Still unable to get it booked in at my LBS, I found another (equally professional) business that could fit me in.

With the complete re-fit, I have taken the opportunity to revise the entire range of gear ratios, bringing everything down several inches. Most of my cycling life, I have ridden the standard range provided by the compact-double chainring of 50/34, coupled with an 11-30 cassette at the back, giving a range of approximately 120″-30″. A good range to have, and it has served me very well over the years. But, as is the way with all human beings, the anno domini have been marching on almost imperceptibly, until I realised one day I wasn’t climbing the local hills with quite the same ease I used to and, like a lot of male cyclists of my ilk, I was refusing to accept the inevitable. Until now….

So, the bottom line is, I have had fitted a 40/24 crankset, with an 11-32 cassette, now giving me a gear range of 96″-20″, which means that some of the bothersome hills have mysteriously flattened out. In fact, I climbed one this morning that would have had me in my lowest gear with the old set-up, and now I find I have 3 ratios to spare!

If you are not familiar with ‘gear inches’ (as opposed to gain ratios), on my old set-up, to engage with the top ratio of 120″, I would have to be going at more than 80kph. Given that I seldom exceed 50/60kph, the top four or five ratios were useless and dispensable. Now, with a top ratio of only 96″, I can still pedal at speeds over 50kph, but it now gives me the benefit of a much bigger range at the bottom end, where they are most needed. But, playing around with chainwheel and cassette sizes can bring other changes as well, especially if your front and rear changers are no longer up to the job. Mine weren’t, so they had to be replaced too.

The nett result has been that I now have a bike which continues to be utterly familiar in every respect, except for its range of gears and its new-found ability to drag me up the hills without me complaining too much. What is there not to like?

Change of steed

Tern Verge

My Litespeed Ti has been admitted into the A&E of a local bicycle hospital. It’s getting on in years, like so many of us, but came to an almost terminal halt recently about 10 miles from home.

Fully aware of its condition, I decided anyway to continue riding it until its last gasp, driven by the fact that my local bike shop has been closed for the duration of the lockdown, and unavailable to do the work.

With age and miles, the whole of the drivetrain wore out, and a stretched chain was clinging for dear life onto the razor-sharp teeth of the chainwheel. But then it started jumping, and grinding, and being generally uncooperative, so the bicycle doctors are currently performing radical transplant surgery which will change the whole drivetrain in its entirety.

So, in the meantime, I renew my acquaintance with my Tern Verge, a nifty machine with a wide range of gears for a 1x set-up, but only really designed for more sedate long-distance stuff, carrying luggage. But it could be the future of my adventuring escapades….

Riding to Turkey during lockdown…

Who, outside the world of Himalayan climbing, would ever use the word ‘Everesting’? The fact that my spellcheck underlines it suggests that it hasn’t yet been elevated from ‘urban dictionary’ status to the heady heights of an Oxford English Dictionary entry. Since you know this website is all about matters cycling, you will already suspect it figures in the world of bicycles.

The fact that you can ‘climb’ Everest on a bike without straying too far from your front door is testament to peoples’ ingenuity at adapting modern technology to create new and exciting challenges. So, step out of your door, ride to the nearest substantial hill, and climb it non-stop enough times until you have ‘Everested’, in other words climbed to at least 8,848 metres. That is what Tom Stephenson, a 20 year old Cumbrian, did recently on his local climb, the Kirkstone pass, and broke the UK record in just over 9 hours, climbing the pass 38 times.

If I were to do something similar on my nearest proper hill in West Cambridgeshire, with only a 26 metre elevation, I’d have to climb it 340 times, not something I aim to do this week, nor any week. But this has kept a lot of keen cyclists busy during lockdown, it would seem. I mean, what else is there to do during a pandemic? Just nip out and spend nine hours climbing Everest, and then brag about it to the rest of the world via Strava. Am I sounding a bit cynical? I do apologise.

In the meantime, if you have followed any of my Without Words series of posts, you will know I have been ‘lane-bashing’ in my local area during lockdown, never straying more than 25km (15 miles) from my front door. All my rides have been shortish rides of 40-50km, occasionally exceeding 60km, and always in the morning as a pre-lunch escape from the house. I have ridden just about every lane, passed through every village, stopped in many of them to find something out about the community, always started from home and finished at home, and learned a lot about what lies on my doorstep. It’s been a fascinating venture, and it’s come up with an equally fascinating statistic.

Today is the three month anniversary of the start of lockdown. In that time I have clocked up a fairly modest 2,416km, but stringing all the rides together I discover that I have ridden from Paris to Edirne, just inside the Turkish border. Having ridden from my home to Istanbul in the past, I know just about the whole of that route, and it’s a long way.

Which reminds me of a little anecdote from that journey. I stopped at a crossroad somewhere in Germany to consult my map, and two pretty young girls on bicycles stopped, and asked if they could help me. I was flattered, of course, but I had been waiting for a moment like this. I scratched my head, pretended I was really lost and a bit confused, and said: “Can you tell me the way to Istanbul?”. They were completely flummoxed by my question. I kept a straight face, waiting for them to find an answer. They looked at each other, then at me, and one of them eventually waved an arm vaguely in a south easterly direction and said: “Oh, that’s a long way from here, maybe 2000-3000km”. I did my best to look thoroughly crestfallen, and said to them: “Damn! I wish someone had told me that before I set off”.

View over the Cambridgeshire from a mere 40 metres.
View over the Cambridgeshire countryside from a mere 40 metres.

Dervla Murphy

This lady is now a mere 89 years of age, and she is a rare example of her species. Having nursed both her parents through to their untimely deaths, she set off to cycle from Waterford in Ireland to India, in 1962, on a single geared man’s bicycle, carrying a .25 pistol for protection. And so began a life of astonishing adventure, mainly on two wheels which, even with the onset of single parenthood to her daughter Rachael, didn’t stop the travel to remote places, latterly beginning again with 5 year Rachael.

She used the gun three times on that journey, against wolves (she killed two), against a potential rapist, and against thieves who tried to steal her bicycle. Fortunately, the shots against humans were simply to scare them off.

She has written many books about her travels but her first, and best known, was Full Tilt, which quickly established her on the world stage of adventure writing.

And in 1993, despite hating the prospect of being interviewed, she appeared on Desert Island Discs. Click the link below.

https://www.travelbooks.co.uk/dervla-murphy-2/2017/6/24/desert-island-discs-1993

Memories of Japan 2015

Like most avid cyclists in the UK, I take my regular permited dose of exercise most days, taking advantage of the fine Easter weather, and going for a circular ride from my home, never straying more than about 10 miles (16km) from my house. And there is a growing number of people doing the same, both old-time roadies and newbies alike, enjoying the relative quiet of the traffic-free roads, and the burgeoning wildlife all around us.

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In my ‘off-duty’ moments (and there are many of them during this lockdown period), I frequently gaze out of our front window at the two wild cherry trees just coming into flower, and I am reminded of the day I arrived back from Japan in 2015, having completed the end-to-end of the country, and enjoyed several days following the famous ‘sakura’ (the cherry blossom season) from south to north.

I remember thinking then, as I gazed on the riotous blossom of our own cherry trees in mid-April of 2015 on my return from Japan, that I actually had a mini-Japanese ‘sakura’ on my own doorstep, but like a lot of travel-addicted romantics, I had to go chasing it on

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Himeji Castle, Japan

the other side of the globe.

Now, with long-distance travel curtailed for an indefinite period of time, when travel romantics like me will find it hard to justify most forms of recreational travel that include long-haul flights to far-off destinations, when all the while, if we could just change the way we think about our more local destinations and try hard to look for ‘the extraordinary in the commonplace’ and the ‘diamonds in our own backyards’.

As I continue to struggle to develop this attitude of mind, I think of my not-so-distant ancestors, most of them living in Ireland, who were so poor and limited in their resources, they would seldom have strayed more than 5 miles from their homes, and then only to go to the local markets and cattle auctions. If you are a cyclist like me, are you going to allow yourself to be locked into frantic spinning sessions on Zwift or Peloton inside your garage or conservatory, or are you going to get out into the wide-and-wonderful, breathe in lungsful of scented spring air, and find your challenges in the local hills and your thrills on the inevitable descents?

Think about it.

2019 in a nutshell

Total distance for year: 6,325 miles/10,179km

Nobody wants to read a blow-by-blow breakdown of a full 12 months of cycling, and I am certainly not going to indulge myself to that extent. But casting an eye back over the previous year can reveal some interesting things. Annual mileage can be influenced by a host of different things, but I’ve learned that there is a threshold beyond which you will find yourself riding the bike primarily just to increase your total mileage. In other words, it becomes the driving force. The last couple of years have seen me come to recognise that threshold, pull back from it, and settle into what is a more comfortably managed limit, but which still surpasses the number of miles I drive by a substantial margin.

Separating out local mileage from adventure mileage, it’s no surprise to find that the bulk of my annual distance is still in the day-to-day riding within a 50 mile radius of my home (1,802 adventure miles v 4523 local miles). To get further afield on a morning/day ride, I am now not averse to broadening that radius and using public transport for part of the return journey. This has the benefit of opening up new terrain and new areas to explore. So, for instance, I took a train out to Norwich for a two day 125 mile summer solstice ride back home, with a generally supportive wind behind me.

The adventure miles last year were made up by my Biking the Baltic ride (crossing 8 countries and visiting 9 cities in the late summer), a week on the tandem in Holland in July (the hottest week in Dutch recorded history), a tandem rally in the Wye Valley, and the summer solstice ride. My local mileage is almost totally made up of solo-riding, but with the added benefit of meeting up with fellow cycling cronies at country tearooms to chew the fat. So today, as I write this, I have just come back from a 50 mile jaunt out to Fermyn Woods near Brigstock, where there is a café that amply serves the needs of hungry cyclists.

As I was reflecting on annual statistics, I decided to do a quick retrospective of my 11 years of retirement, and discovered (unsurprisingly) that I had accumulated a lot of miles, namely 90,467 miles/145,588km, about 25% of which were achieved on my many adventure trips around the world. As impressive as any of this may seem, it all pales into utter insignificance in the light of the lifetime mileage (1 million miles) achieved by Russ Mantle at the age of 82, much of it during his years of retirement. Very much a man of his generation, he would have spent most of his waking hours turning pedals.

So what of the coming 2020? Perhaps like many adventure cyclists, I will be trying to honour our collective need to add our grain of sand to saving the planet. Even though riding a bike is an ultra-green form of transport, getting to and from our destinations can be fraught with multiple flights. So for this purpose, I have added this little beast to my stable of bikes

Tern Verge P10

The Tern Verge P10 is designed for long-distance, has ten ratios on a 1x gear set-up (ie. just one front chainring) and, most importantly, folds for transportation. This means I should be able to hop on and hop off trains and buses at will, and use non-aviation transport to get to some of my distant destinations.

Watch this space. I am currently looking at Flixbus that might take me down to the French Mediterranean in a few week’s time.

The cyclist who went out in the cold: Tim Moore

A veteran of several endurance cycling experiences, including French Revolutions, when he followed the course of the Tour de France, and Gironimo!, when he engaged with the route of the 1914 Giro d’Italia on a period bicycle, in The cyclist who went out in the cold, Moore takes on another seemingly ridiculous challenge, by riding the 8,500km Iron Curtain Trail on a communist East German shopping bike with only two gears, called a MIFA900. Moore is no amateur playing with risky possibilities. Even though his kit looks every inch unworthy of the job, the man who rides it knows how to survive long distances under trying conditions.

All that aside, what carries Moore’s narrative is his sense of humour (which is frequently over the top, and will be too much for many readers) and his ability to tease out fascinating bits of background history about the places he passes through. He is a consummate wordsmith, who conjures engaging narrative from long boring bits of travelling. Until you have spent 8-10 hours a day turning pedals, day after day for several weeks, you won’t understand how uneventful life can be on a bicycle. To convert all of that into an interesting flowing narrative takes a great deal of imagination and linguistic adroitness.

I frequently shy away from reading fully-texted narratives about long journeys on bicycles because, in the hands of many aspiring travel writers, the endurance nature of their travelling experience is translated directly into a feat of endurance for the reader. Very few writers can put together an engaging narrative and carry the reader for the full length of their journey. Tim Moore, however, successfully held my attention through the 8,500 gruelling kilometres, from Kirkenes in the north of Finland, to Tsarevo on the shores of the Black Sea.

Bridge over the River Tweed…50km

In the shadow of the triple peaks of the Eildon Hills, the River Tweed carves its way from the Lowther Hills, through the Cheviots, reaching its estuary at Berwick some 160km later. I chose a mid route stretch from Galashiels to Inverleithen, covering some 50km on both sides of the valley, steep and challenging on the southern flank, fighting a strong westerly wind, but fast and undulating on the northern flank, ushered along by the very same strong westerly.

Stunningly beautiful in the autumn sunshine, I will let the photos tell their own story….

Look carefully and you will spy a fisherman in the mid-distance

Golden colours of autumn

Traffic-free

Soft undulations of the autumnal landscape

A tunnel of trees filtering the sunlight

From Estonia into Latvia

As with all member countries of the Schengen Agreement, border crossings are now non-events, barely marked by a sign telling you of your transition….but in the case of Estonia and Latvia, that hasn’t always been the case.

In 1917, they started the process of creating a definitive border, and brought in the services of a neutral referee, in the name of Steven Tallents, a former colonel in the British army. The major problem was satisfying all the different ethnic groups, and Tallents himself was accused by both sides of corruption and taking bribes….even of having a Latvian wife and property in Riga. Anyway, the border was finally signed off in 1927, the border (or non-border) we have today.

Ethnic mix is a big problem here in Latvia, especially with the number of Russians still here from Soviet days. There’s an uneasy tolerance between communities, but things could easily flair up given the right conditions.

I found myself catching up with two

Eurovelo routes which happened to coincide. The EV10, the Baltic Sea route, and the EV13, the Iron Curtain trail. Both are just shy of 8000km in length, and both gain most of their distance from weaving in and out of either coastlines or country borders. I have to confess I would find both of them very frustrating to follow, sometimes weaving 100km to get to a point only 50km away. Unlike a river, my basic nature is not to meander…

And I have to tell you I found yet another extraordinary pitch for my tent, just 40km out of Riga. For €5, a young guy has let me use a corner of his constructed paintball battleground, and I’ve found a covered niche amongst the BBQs and picnic tables….because presumably, in these paintball battles, they stop for lunch or refreshments now and again…. Btw, in Latvian it’s called ‘peintbola’….

Distance covered: 90km

Do you speak ‘Estonglish’?

Many countries have a word to describe the impact of English on their language, such as Spanglish, Franglais, Finglish and Denglish (German)…. I asked the campsite warden in Tallinn if Estonians had a similar word, and she thought not. So let me stake a claim to creating a brand new word on behalf of 1.3 million Estonians: ‘Estonglish’. What do you reckon its chances of making it into the Oxford English dictionary?

This has been my last full day in Estonia. I’m just 10km north of the border with Latvia, in another RMK rustic site, right beside the sea, nestling amongst pine trees. As romantic as it sounds, you have to accept that pine cones will periodically fall on your tent during the night…..but not as bad as the coconuts that fell on my cabin roof on a remote Belize island once. They frightened the living daylights out of me….

And when I thought I was far removed from native English-speaking civilisation, I bumped into a bunch of Aussie cyclists, all from Perth, and all on a fully supported ride through the three Baltic countries. They teased me, I teased them….but the banter got very serious when I mentioned the recent nail-biting victory of England in the Ashes.

“Ah, they’re still a bunch of Sheilas”, said one of the men. “Just wait till we get them on the rugger field….”.

It’s good to know that traditional enmity between the two nations is alive and well….

And before I go here’s yet another boring photo of a sunset from just outside my tent:

The magnetism of the campfire..

Last night, I finished cooking my meal, stoked up the fire, and invited a recently-arrived Romanian couple to join me. They were on a one year campervan trip around Europe, having taken leave from their jobs as clinical psychologists, and they are currently en route to Nordcapp before the winter sets in.

An hour later, two Finnish sisters came and joined us, and the stories and anecdotes flowed until I had to excuse myself to climb into my sleeping bag…..but they were set for a few more hours, such is the magnetism of the campfire, especially after sunset. And, of course, the lingua franca across all nationalities is always English. One Estonian lad said to me it was a joy to hear an English person speak genuine native English, because all he is exposed to is the ‘foreign English’ of the tourists.

Today, the cruise control was set to cover the 90km to Parnu. It was the infamous E67 all the way, with its narrow shoulder for cyclists, and it’s thundering commercial traffic heading towards the border with Latvia….and the sun was beating down with determination, driving me to seek respite in the shade every 20km..

But in Parnu, I found a pitch for my tent in a beautiful garden apple orchard, with an outbuilding containing shower, toilet and kitchen…..a perfect spot just a few hundred metres from the sea. And I can eat as many apples as I want….

So this morning, with a bag full of apples, I will set off for the Latvian border….but delay my crossing till tomorrow with the promise of a last free pitch in another Forestry Commission rustic site, this time amongst pine trees by the beach…

Heading south

A number of comments made on cycling forums about the dangers of cycling in the Baltic countries would be enough to dissuade the faint-hearted from venturing out…..however, I did well today to find a diversion that was blessed with the best cycle paths I’ve ever seen, anywhere.

Even if you feel very nervous about taking to an E road, and find the cycling shoulder a bit too narrow, there is usually a gravel track to the side, which would give you a bit more space, but has the minor disadvantages of any gravel track. You take your pick…..

To break my journey to Parnu on the coast, after 70km I decided to check out a rustic camping area maintained by the Forestry Commission (RMK has a useful app) and discovered a perfect spot. Very basic, with only well-water and long-drop loos, but there are fire pits for lighting a fire, and a ready supply of wood….so barbecued pork is on the menu tonight….who said I didn’t cook when I’m camping?

The area around the campsite is called the Varbola Stronghold, and once the site of an ancient Viking fortress.

Tallinn, Estonia

The thing about Tallinn, as with most cities of its kind, is that it’s undeniably stunning medieval historic centre is such a must-see, that the world and his dog, as well as hundreds of cruise tourists, will be there in their droves, following their guides like sheep. As you meander down cobbled streets, they come towards you in thick waves…. That, of course, is not to denigrate the value of visiting Tallinn….. I know it’s on everyone’s bucket list, and deservedly so. And if you are cycling through these parts, it merits at least a two night stopover.
So I checked into a central backpacker’s hostel, not only to find a handy base, but also somewhere secure for the bike. And I would heartily recommend the Old Town Alur Hostel….it’s well furnished, spacious and airey, and a bed in a shared dormitory only cost me €9. That is cheaper than most camping pitches, but then tonight I may have the company of the odd stag or hen party….and I won’t find that out until the small hours of the morning…
If you like history and architecture, Tallinn is awash, and it’s all confined within a historic centre, with everything just a short walk away. I got absorbed into the fast-changing circumstances of the last 100 years, and its final emergence from the grips of the Soviet Union and it’s flight into the arms of the EU, which it regards as it’s saviour from any future encroachment by Russia.
Estonia itself is only a bit-player in world affairs, with its tiny population of only 1.3 million, but it is way ahead of its European neighbours in the field of technology.

Tomorrow I head south towards Parnu, the ‘summer capital’ by the coast…..

A multi-cultural encounter

After the tribulation comes the blessing…. ‘every cloud has a silver lining’. My blessing was to be hosted by Jaakko and Irina last night.

As hosts, they were everything a guest could hope for….and much more. A salmon supper, a 90 degree C sauna, a few beers, and conversation that ranged from Finnish and Russian history (Irina is from St Petersburg), to travel, to fascinating comparisons between languages…..and it all continued into breakfast the next morning. The memories of my stay will be with me for life.

Before boarding a ferry for Tallinn, I spent a few absorbing hours in the National Museum, and then went prepared for the surprise of Central Library….

the top floor is designed like the deck of a ship, rising steeply towards bow and stern, and is popularly known as Book Heaven, where people can relax, stroll, buy coffee, admire the views and, of course, choose and read books. And it’s one of the first libraries to use robots to handle and sort books.

And so to Tallinn….

A rude awakening….

Weather forecasting: an art or a science? Like most long-distance cyclists, I rely heavily on weather apps to help with decision-making. So when I confirmed with two websites that the next 24 hours would give us nothing more obnoxious than light rain with sunny intervals, I had no hesitation about camping last night. Big mistake…huge, massive mistake… I was woken at 5am by the patter of rain….no problem, I thought to myself. The patter developed into a persistent drumming which grew heavier and heavier….then there was a blinding flash of lightening, followed immediately by a thunderous crash of thunder…..much too close for comfort, especially in a tent. I grabbed all I could and dashed the 30 metres to the kitchen hut….and within 5 minutes, some 15 other campers (mainly Dutch) had joined me in the patient wait for the storm to subside…..but it didn’t. It went on for the best part of four hours, dumping some 60mm of rain (nearly 2.5 inches), what Finland averages in a month. At 9am, I gingerly returned to my tent expecting it to be awash. I opened the flaps nervously, not sure what would find. Though completely soaked on the outside, it had remained relatively dry on the inside, which meant my down sleeping bag (amongst other things) had been saved. So before the heavens opened again, I gathered up the tent and hung it out to dry in a covered area…..and in the meantime, I accepted cups of coffee from the more fortunate who had slept in cabins and caravans, and made conversation with a variety of people from across the globe. Crises bring people together…. I headed into Helsinki along a network of forested tracks, spent a couple of hours in the City Museum, before finding my way out to Jaakko and Irina, my Warmshowers hosts for the evening.

In for a battery top up?

So I tried another tack….this time to give the bike a tune-up, but I needed professional help. In another service station, I bought a can of ‘battery top-up’, and asked the counter assistant (this time a young man) to help me with it….

“With what?” he said. Well, with the battery, I said, I’ve never done it before. So he followed me outside, stood for a few seconds looking at the bike, and said: “But it’s not an electric bike, so how can I top up the battery”.

We looked at each other, and I knew he had sussed my ruse immediately, and we just fell about laughing. So I went inside and topped up my own battery instead. Good to know there’s a sense of fun among some Finns, at least. (By the way, this battery drink has zero calories, in case you are interested).

When I left the Friendship Inn this morning, people were swimming in the lake, attending informal meetings both inside the house, and out on the jetty-veranda that jutted out over the lake…..it was beautiful.

I fell in love with the place….I was sad to leave….I hung on till midday, then had to drag myself away….there were 90km to do to Espoo….